Warrumbungles Rock climbing237 routes in crag
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Perhaps the greatest concentration of high quality, long routes to be found anywhere in Australia. Adventurous routes in a remote, beautiful setting.
The four main climbing areas in the Warrumbungles-Crater Bluff, Belougery Spire, Tonduron and Bluff Mountain-offer some of the best long routes in the country, as well as perhaps the greatest concentration of long routes to be found anywhere in Australia. All this in a spectacular setting of towering, rocky spires, thin blades of rock 100 metres high and 200 metre plus cliffs seemingly everywhere you look. The routes, however, are generally fairly serious, irrespective of the grade, with route-finding almost always a problem -but this just adds to the sense of adventure one inevitably experiences when climbing in the Warrumbungles. As well as the sheer beauty of the climbs and their setting the routes in the Warrumbungles, being one of the oldest climbing areas in Australia, are rich in history. I can't picture climbing to the top or Belougery Spire without imagining how Eric Dark and Osmar White must have felt when they reached the summit for the first time in 1932, nor can l climb Lieben without sparing a thought for Ted Batty and his famous pair or sand-shoes! In the Warrumbungles, more than in any place I know, there is something more to the climbs than just a series of moves. All in all, the Warrumbungles are wonderful. They are home to some magnificent climbs, and I hope you, too, have the opportunity to experience their special charm.
Mark Colyvan 'The Warrumbungles' Insert for Rock No 20, 1994
Most of the crags are in Warrumbungle National Park.
The Warrumbungle National Park is located in the NW of New South Wales just W of Coonabarabran on the Newell Hwy. It is reached by driving to Coonabarabran and following the well-signposted road past Siding Spring Observatory to the park (about 33 km).
Where to stay
Most climbers choose to stay in or camp near Balor Hut, a one·and·a·half hour walk up the hill from Camp Pincham, which is where the car is left (the trail head to the Grand High Tops walk).
The Balor Hut campsite offers tankwater (although as the tank sometimes runs dry it is wise to check with the rangers first) and access to Belougery Spire, Crater Bluff and Bluff Mountain. Access to other areas is described under the relevant sections.
There is also primitive but beautiful camping (no facilities) at Dows Camp which is close to Bluff Mountain, another hour or so past Balour Hut.
Bookings can be be made by contacting the National Park office.
This history as well as most of the route descriptions were provided (with permission) by Mark Colyvan from his guide 'The Warrumbungles' which was an insert to Rock Magazine Issue 20, 1994.
The climbing history of the Warrumbungles begins with the first rockclimbing club in Australia, the Blue Mountaineers, a very informal group of climbers led by the legendary Eric Dark. Besides Dark, the club's core consisted of Eric Lowe. Osmar White, Dot English (later Dot Butler), Dark's wife Eleanor and the mysterious Louis Brant who wrote an article for Walkabout in 1936 about the group's activities in the Warrumbungles, including himself in many of their ascents despite receiving no mention in accounts given by any of the others. (I suspect that Louis Brant may have been a pen-name for Eric Lowe, who was well on his way to becoming a famous writer).
Eric Dark was inspired to visit the Warrumbungles after seeing pictures on the walls of the local railway station in Mittagong around the turn of the century. It was not until 1932, however, that he finally managed to get there, accompanied by his wife, Lowe, White and perhaps Brant. They were first taken to Tonduron by the local farmer, JL Mcintyre, on whose property the magnificent spire lay. Mcintyre apparently wanted to see whether the group could really climb, so he ignored the usual ascent route and took them to the more difficult south side. The five of them, Mcintyre included, then proceeded to climb to the summit, most probably by what we now know as South Arête (5).
They then moved camp to a spot near the head of Tunderbrine Creek in order to have a go at Crater Bluff (then known as Split Rock) and Belougery Spire, the latter having been proclaimed as 'impossible' by the locals in the pub. Dark and White attempted Crater Bluff by what may have been Diagonal Route but failed some 30 m short of the top. The same pair then turned their attention to Belougery Spire and, after a couple or false starts, managed to make the summit of this spectacular spire by what was almost certainly the Tourist Traverse (6), much to the amazement of the locals!
It is interesting to note that the route Dark and White eventually took to the summit of Belougery Spire had been seen by Dark through field-glasses from Wombelong and that he had commented at the time that the key to reaching the summit lay in attaining the obvious traverse on the West Face. This indicated that the group's success in the Warrumbungles was no fluke-Dark, at least, was very methodical and had a keen eye for a feasible route.
The next trip to the area was undertaken by Dark and Lowe (or 'Louis Brant', depending on which account you believe) in 1935, with the intention of doing some 'gentle prospecting of possible routes up Split Rock'. They looked at a number of possibilities, in the process making a rather ambitious attempt on Rib and Gully.
The following year a larger group returned, with Crater Bluff their main objective. After a little more exploration, Dark and English climbed to the summit by the Tourist Route (9). The next day the young, barefooted English took the rest of the group to the summit, including Suzanne Reichard who later wrote an account of the ascent in the Sun newspaper.
This was the last recorded visit to the Warrumbungles by the Blue Mountaineers and the group drifted apart soon afterwards. While their contributions in the way of new routes in the Warrumbungles are of no great technical interest by today's standards, they stand as monuments to the audacity and adventurous spirit of these pioneer rockclimbers and their primitive equipment, which consisted of a rope and a hand-made cast-iron piton.
The next recorded activity in the Warrumbungles was not until the mid-1950s when a member of the then recently formed Sydney Rockclimbing Club (SAC), Russ Kippax, teamed up with a visiting English climber, Bill Peascod. This pair made the first ascent of the Broad-knife by South Arete (11) in 1954 and in the same year established Vintage Rib on Crater Bluff. At grade Hard V Diff (15), this latter was the hardest route in the area for six years and remained unrepeated for a decade. The exact route they took is not certain, but it was definitely the best route in the area until the early 1960s. The same year saw the first ascent of Rib and Gully (13) on Crater Bluff by C. lvin and party.
By the late 1950s the Warrumbungles had become a popular destination among SAC regulars, with the resulting establishment of a number of good new routes such as, in 1956, North Arete (13) on the Bread-knife by Kippax, Dave Roots, Jeff Field and Peter Hardy and, two years later, Diagonal Route (15) on Crater Bluff by Hardy and Field. Also of note from this period was Ted Batty's and Ron Malor's North Face Route on Crater Bluff which, at grade 17, was a very hard route for 1960. The following year saw the first ascent of Vertigo (10) on Belougery Spire by Roger McDonald and Alex Hromas.
Nineteen sixty-one also saw the return to Australia of Bryden Allen, bringing with him the first pair of PAs (which, for the benefit of the youngsters, were an early type of climbing-boot). Allen wasted little time in making an impact on the Warrumbungles with ascents of Lieben (17), Out and Beyond (15) and the direct version of Kevin and Trevor Westren's route Cornerstone Rib, all climbed with Ted Batty in 1962. Apart from his obvious ability as a climber, Allen's major contribution to the Australian climbing scene was his choice of routes. He was attracted to big, blank-looking walls that were years ahead of their time. Lieben is a perfect example of Allen's vision; even today, with the advantages of modem equipment, many climbers have some fairly anxious moments on this route.
Try to imagine doing it in 1962 with the equipment Allen and Batty had available to them Batty didn't even have boots; he climbed it in sand-shoes! In 1963 Allen published 'The Rockclimbs of NSW'. which. contained 18 routes in the Warrumbungles. This number was soon exceeded, however, as Allen continued the new-routing spree during that year. Perhaps the most significant route of 1963 was Heart-stopper (16) on the West Face of the Bread-knife, climbed by Allen and a young, inexperienced Chris Regan who was apparently in full accord with the choice of name! Allen continued working on the Bread-knife in 1964 with the first ascent of the East Face route [17,M2J.
Nineteen sixty-four was significant for other reasons, however. By that time all major peaks in the area had numerous routes on them; the one notable exception was the impressive North Face or Bluff Mountain. This face was home to only one route, North West Gully (10), which had been established by lvin, Montgomery and Griffiths in 1960, and even this was well to one side of the main face. Allen set about rectifying this situation, choosing a bold route up the middle of the highest part of this 300 m cliff. The resulting climb, Elijah (17), was undoubtedly the most serious hard climb in Australia at that time and a portent of things to come on Bluff Mountain. In an interview in 1972 Allen had this to say about the route:
‘Elijah took us eight days actual climbing before we did it, most of that retreating and going back again. I started off with two attempts with Ted Batty, two with John Davis and finally finished it off with John Ewbank, and event then I had to offer to pay for all his food for a week to get him up there (Thrutch No 58, December 1972).
The other reason why 1964 was a significant year in the Warrumbungles was that it saw the name of John Ewbank appear on new-route descriptions there for the first time. He opened his account with a 315 m girdle traverse of the West Face of the Bread-knife and the Butter-knife with John Davis, called Broadsword (16). Ewbank, of course, would go on to dominate the hard new route scene in the second half of the 1960s, not just in the Warrumbungles but throughout New South Wales.
The most significant additions of 1965 were by Allen (again!) and John Davis-who did the first hard route on Tonduron with Northern Groove (18) and by John Lawrence and David Witham who did Caucasus Corner (17) on Belougery Spire. As already mentioned, the latter half of the 1960s belonged to John Ewbank. On Boxing Day 1966, climbing with John Worrall, he managed to establish a sustained and exposed route right of Lieben which Allen had previously attempted in 1964. The result was The Crucifixion (16). Throughout 1966 and 1967, however, Ewbank mostly concentrated on short, hard routes on the Butter-knife and the Fish-knife such as The Rapier (19) and Cutlass (16).
The next routes of any significance to be done were in 1969 when the powerful team of Ewbank and Allen forced two major new lines up Bluff Mountain. First in April, came Ginsberg (17,M1) and then Stonewall Jackson (17,M4) in October.
Nineteen sixty-nine also saw a number of repeats of some of the harder 'Bungles routes by a new crowd of young climbers. Amongst them were a couple of names that would pop up time and time again on new routes in the 'Bungles, particularly on Bluff Mountain: Keith Bell and Keith Lockwood. In the 1970s attention turned to Bluff Mountain and eventually to Tonduron. In December 1972 Bell and Greg Mortimer established two new routes on Bluff Mountain on the one trip. Although, as Lockwood commented, 'such domination of the cliff was new and startling' [Rock no 3, 1980), it was a taste of things to come, especially in the case of Bell. The first of these two ground-breaking routes was Icarus (19) which opened up the right-hand end of the cliff, while the second, done after a rest-day, took a more obvious line up the extreme left end of the main face. The latter route, Bastion Buttress (13), provides a lovely introduction to the cliff. The following year Lockwood visited Tonduron with Ray Lassman and managed to do A Little Rainbow (19) after the almost obligatory epic.
Nineteen seventy-three saw the publication of the first edition of 'Rockclimbing in the Warrumbungles' by Andrew Pavey and Warwick Williams, which described over 50 climbs in the area, the hardest being grade 19.
The following year Bell returned to claim another two routes on Bluff Mountain, this time with Lassman. The first was the wall between Ginsberg and Icarus, which yielded one of Bluff Mountain's hardest routes to date: Ulysses (20). The other route, which had looked as though it might have been harder, was to become one of the most popular classics in the 'Bungles. It was, of course, Flight of the Phoenix (16). Kim Carrigan was also busy on Bluff Mountain in 1974. First, he freed Stonewall Jackson at grade 20 with Jan Lewis; then the same pair attempted a new route between Elijah and Ginsberg below looming roofs. It turned into a nightmare epic on bad rock, minimal protection and poor belays. They retreated, and Lewis vowed never to go near Bluff Mountain again. Carrigan returned later that year with Nat Nicholas to complete the route. The result was Aladinsane (19).
In 1974, Bell also made a couple of trips to Tonduron. The first, with Mortimer, resulted in Virago (20) and Saratoga (17); the second, with Ian 'Humzoo' Thomas, produced Antares (19). The following year, Allen made a brief return to the Warrumbungles, climbing North-west Groove (15), also on Tonduron, with Williams. Meanwhile, back on Bluff Mountain, 1975 produced no new routes but instead was a period of consolidation in which many major routes received their second ascents. Lockwood and Peter Morris, for example, claimed the second ascent, and first free ascent, of Ginsberg (now 19).
In 1976 a few more routes were added to Bluff Mountain. Bell and Mortimer climbed Daedalus (19,M1) on the right end of the cliff and attempted a girdle or the whole North Face. The latter, rather ambitious project produced Rim-lire (17), a 480 m route starting up Bastion Buttress and finishing up Ginsberg alter traversing above the middle roofs-Bell described the exposure as 'shattering'. It was also in this year that Lockwood and John Bowen made a weekend dash from Melbourne to do the classic London's Dockyard (19) which takes a line between Stonewall Jackson and Flight of the Phoenix. As though doing a major new route on a weekend trip from Melbourne wasn't epic enough, on the way back they blew up the engine in Lockwood's Volkswagen and had to limp home in second gear!
In September 1976 Joe Friend published the second edition or Rockclimbing in the Warrumbungles, which described over 8O routes, the hardest being graded 20. Since the release of that guide there has been a great deal of activity in the Warrumbungles with, as you would expect, most of it occurring on Bluff Mountain (and much of it by Keith Bell!). Unfortunately, however, very little information has been available since the 1976 guide, resulting in many new routes being climbed without prior knowledge of the existing climbs. Consequently, there are likely to be a number of routes in his guide which are not really new routes. No doubt it will be some time before matters are sorted out There have been few major developments since 1976. Most of the routes established have been of a similar quality and nature to those already existing. These years saw further epic weekend jaunts from Melbourne by Lockwood with a variety of partners. One Friday night in September 1977 Lockwood and Ed Neve made the 13·hour drive to the Warrumbungles, then, without sleeping, walked up to Balor Hut and dumped their camping gear. Continuing on to Bluff Mountain, the pair climbed Flight of the Phoenix as a warm-up, taking about three hours (Lockwood had done it before). They then returned to Balor Hut to sleep. They were up at dawn the next day and again headed for Bluff Mountain, this time to do a classic new route, Neruda (18), near Ginsberg. This took them most or the day. Upon completing it they picked up their gear from the hut, walked back to the car and drove through the night to arrive back in Melbourne on Monday morning!
Perhaps the most significant new routes done since 1976 resulted from a visit in May 1982 by three of Australia's top climbers of the period, Mark Moorhead, Kim Carrigan and Mike law. By the end of their visit there were three major new climbs on Bluff Mountain, all harder than grade 20, the hardest being Cracked Pane (24) which was four grades harder than anything else in the Warrumbungles at the time and remains the area's most difficult route. The other routes completed by this trio were Lusty's (21) and For Starters (23).
Worthy of special note are the astounding numbers of new routes with which Keith Bell has been involved over the years, particularly on Bluff Mountain. His love of this cliff is perhaps best illustrated by the following statistic: Bell has his name on 21 of the 39 routes documented on Bluff Mountain at the present time. Given the size of the mountain and the seriousness of the routes, this is truly an impressive record.
Mark acknowledged that there are obviously many names and stories not mentioned in this rather selective history of rockclimbing in the Warrumbungles. Please feel free to add more.
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